European Parliament debates ethical questions around robots and AI

Can a robot be held responsible for its actions? Concerned by liability risks and security issues, European legislators say it’s time to take a closer look at how we plan to use advanced tech

Posted 12 January 2017 at 9:15am by

The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee votes on today the first-ever EU rules for robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), arguing that their increased use has led to proposals for the first-ever EU rules to address the legal and ethical issues involved.

Ideas being discussed includes the need to increase safety, introduce code of conduct and define who is liable for robots’ actions.

Questions the MEPs say need to be looked at include:

  • Do robots have rights – and if so, what are they? 
  • What ethical principles should bind them? 
  • Can they be held liable for accidents? 

Strasbourg really is taking this stuff seriously: in a post on its website, the Parliament says that, “The first thing is that you always have to tell people that a robot is not a human and a robot will never be a human. A robot can show empathy. But he will never feel empathy. You can be physically dependant when you need a robot for some tasks. But you must never think that a robot is a human and that he loves you.”

The background to all this is the fact that robots are being deployed in ever-greater numbers in factories and also taking on tasks such as personal care or surgery, raising fears over unemployment, wealth inequality and alienation, says the EU.

The Committee will also discuss whether robots need to be given legal status as “electronic persons”, as well as the need for them to have an in-built kill switch, which would allow functions to be shut down if necessary.

A European agency for robotics and artificial intelligence to provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise is also on the cards, the BBC reports.

However, some manufacturers believes this level of control is far too early and could hamper development of the industry, Reuters reports.

“We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics,” Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of a trade body called the VDMA’s robotic and automation department, told reporters at the Automatica robotics trade fair in Munich. (VDMA includes firms like Siemens.)

However, even Schwarzkopf acknowledging that a legal framework for self-driving cars would be “needed soon”.